french-pronominal-verbs

Be Proactive! 15+ French Pronominal Verbs to Start Using Now

The much-feared, so confusing, nightmare-inducing…

Pronominal verbs!

Okay, so it’s not like that at all. Who started all those rumors, anyway?

Trust me on this one, you’re overthinking this very useful and completely necessary sector of French grammar.

And it’s likely because you’re trying to compare French to English.

So stop that! Comparing French to English didn’t work with the subjunctive, it has limited use when learning to pronounce French vowels and it’s definitely not going to fly here.

Let’s make an agreement: If you promise not to be scared of pronominal verbs, I’ll walk you through how they work, when to use them and even hand over to you a few of the pronominal verbs the French like best.

Deal?
 


 
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Setting the Record Straight with Pronominal Verbs

So, hold up, what are they?

Pronominal verbs are verbs that need a reflexive pronoun before the verb. Reflexive pronouns, if you aren’t familiar, are those little pronouns you’ve likely seen sprinkled about before French verbs: me, te, se, nous, vous. In a nutshell, they express what the verb is happening to. You can use them with verbs that aren’t pronominal verbs, but the main thing you need to know about them is…

These little pronouns are attached to the pronominal verbs.

They stay right there, sometimes changing position around the verb depending on if you’re giving a command, asking a question or using a compound tense (more on these special conditions later). They’re tethered! And more importantly, they coincide with the subject. That’s what makes pronominal verbs special.

But what does all that mean, exactly? And how do you know which pronoun to use when? Hold up, the examples are a-coming.

If you wanted to use the verb se moquer (to make fun of), then here’s how you would conjugate it:

Je me moque (I make fun of)
Tu te moques (You make fun of)
Il se moque (He makes fun of)
Elle se moque (She makes fun of)
Nous nous moquons
(We make fun of)
Vous vous moquez
(You make fun of)
Ils se moquent
(They make fun of)
Elles se moquent
(They make fun of)

Hmm. Did you notice how all the reflexive pronouns match up to their subject? This is key when it comes to conjugation.

The really important thing here, the part that gets people all bug-eyed when they try to write a sentence in French with pronominal verbs, is that sometimes the pronominal verbs are not reflecting that the subject is doing something to themselves. With se moquer, are these people making fun of themselves? No! They’re making fun of someone else who we haven’t specified.

Trust the verb is the end message here. Know your word definitions, know which verbs are pronominal and don’t worry too much about the translation. Some verbs won’t translate the way you want them to.

Oh, but there’s a kicker (there always seems to be one in French), and that’s that sometimes the subject actually is “verbing” themselves. To tell the difference and know how to conquer pronominal verbs in all shapes and forms, we go on to our next topic…

Wait a minute! Aren’t these called reflexive verbs?

Sort of, yeah. You’ve likely heard these verbs referred to as reflexive verbs. That’s because a lot them are. Reflexive verbs are a subset of pronominal verbs. In fact, pronominal verbs fall into three types.

1. Reflexive

These verbs are used when the subject is doing the verb to themselves. This ties back into that little caveat I mentioned a minute ago. These verbs include those such as se doucher (to shower oneself) and se laver (to wash oneself). If you use these verbs conjugated with the reflexive pronoun that agrees with the subject, then you have a reflexive verb.

2. Reciprocal

If reflexive verbs are verbs that describe a person or people doing something to themselves, then reciprocal verbs are a close cousin. Here’s where you’ll find two or more people “verbing” on each other. An example with se voir (to see one another) is in order:

Nous nous voyons le lundi. (We see each other on Mondays.)

Think of reflexive as “myself, yourself, himself, herself, themselves, ourselves,” and reciprocal as “to each other, to one another.”

3. Idiomatic pronominal

These don’t express anyone doing anything to one another or themselves, but are rather “idiomatic,” meaning, in so many words, that they seem totally normal to French native speakers, and kind of wonky to French learners.

Say we’ve got our friend douter (to doubt). When we add sethe meaning changes to “to suspect.”

Je me doute(I suspect.)

Caution: This does not mean “I suspect myself.” The reflexive pronoun is just a part of the verb, and serves no function other than changing the meaning from “to doubt” to “to suspect.”

To recap, pronominal verbs come in a few different varieties:

  • Reflexive refers back to the subject.
  • Reciprocal is all about third person singulars or plurals doing something to each other (hopefully something nice).
  • Idiomatic pronominal is just a verb that happens to have a reflexive pronoun attached.

These are all important to know, and while you certainly won’t spend your entire French-speaking adventure referring back to these definitions, they’re so useful in the beginning to understanding that pronominal verbs can easily be conquered. They’re just misunderstood because they take on different functions and meanings. But boy, are they useful.

Grammar Struggles with Pronominal Verbs: Conquered

Before we get into some examples, and I send you out into the French world, armed with all the vocabulary to vanquish your fears of pronominal verbs, we need to get into the nitty-gritty of how to use them in a few situations.

Mixing with compound tenses

You’re likely already knee-deep in the perfect tense. What if you want to express any of these verbs in the past (or use any other compound tense, for that matter)?

There are 3 simple things to keep in mind:

1. You will use êtrenot avoir…

2. Which means that agreements with the subject are in order (there are some exceptions to this)…

3. And your reflexive pronoun will go before the conjugated verb être.

In short, it will look something like this:

Hier soir, elle s’est amusée au bar. (Last night, she had a good time at the bar.)

Asking and demanding!

Let’s turn our questioning to questions.

If you’re using the est-ce que method, then not much changes:

Est-ce que tu t’amuses ? (Are you having a good time?)

But if you’re using the inversion technique, you’ll get something like this:

Te brosses-tu les dents ? (Did you brush your teeth?)

It’s exactly the same concept as regular verbs, except you add the reflexive verb to the beginning. Looks funny at first, but certainly not hard to form.

Dual-verb constructions

Let’s say you want to use the near future, which looks like this with regular verbs:

Je vais expliquer. (I’m going to explain.)

Normally, you would just conjugate aller and then add the infinitive of the verb you want to futurize (I know that’s not a word, but work with me here). With pronominal verbs, it’s almost the same process, except you’re going to agree the reflexive verb to the subject:

Je vais me coucher. (I’m going to go to bed.)

It seems a little counter-intuitive to alter the infinitive, but go ahead, I give you permission. If you didn’t agree it, then you would have je vais se coucher, which would mean something along the lines of “I’m going to put oneself to sleep.” So yeah, let’s agree to agree here.

Be Proactive! 15+ French Pronominal Verbs to Start Using Now

To get you started using pronominal verbs, here are 15+ of the most useful.

1. se lever/se doucher (and other “getting ready” verbs)

Definitions: To get up/to take a shower

Type of verb: Reflexive

First thing in the morning, there they are. Nothing like a cup of coffee and a slew of pronominal verbs to get things going. These verbs include:

  • se brosser les dents (to brush one’s teeth)
  • se coiffer (to brush one’s hair)
  • se maquiller (to put makeup on one’s self)

What these all have in common is that you’re doing them to yourself. That makes all of them reflexive verbs. 

Chaque matin, je me lève à six heures du matin. Après mon café, je me douche. Puis, je me coiffe et me maquille, et je me brosse les dents. 

(Each morning, I get up at six in the morning. After my coffee, I take a shower. Then, I brush my hair, put on my makeup and brush my teeth.)

Notice how the English translation of that sentence didn’t match up to the French grammar. That’s because in English we don’t usually say “I makeup myself.”  Sometimes, you’ve just gotta trust the French.

2. se casser (la jambe, le bras, etc.)

Definition: To break (a leg, arm or other body part)

Type of verb: Reflexive

Elle s’est cassé la jambe pendant un match au ping-pong. (She broke her leg during a ping-pong match.)

If you want to talk about someone (hopefully not yourself) breaking a body part, then this reflexive verb is the way to go. It also has an idiomatic meaning. Je me casse is a familiar way to say “I’m leaving.”

Caution: When you’re using the passé composé with a body part (or any other direct object), don’t agree the past participle!

3. s’asseoir 

Definition: To sit down

Type of verb: Reflexive

Pourquoi est-ce que tu t’assieds à l’envers dans la chaise ? (Why are you sitting backwards in the chair?)

Come on, you know this one. If you’ve ever taken a high school French class, then this was in your “classroom commands” vocabulary list in the form of “Assieds-toi !” (Sit down!). This is a useful verb because, as humans, we do a lot of sitting. And if you have a French-speaking dog, then it’s a great command to know. But, I will admit that the conjugation is a little crazy. Here’s a cheat sheet for that, and rest assured, remembering the conjugation is the most difficult part about this pronominal verb.

4. se fâcher

Definition: To get angry

Type of verb: Reflexive

Ils se fâchent encore. (They are fighting again.)

There are a few ways you can use this one. Like in the example, you can use the third person plural (ils, elles) to describe two people who are mad at one another. In addition, you could use se fâcher contre to say that you’re getting angry with someone, like so…

Je me fâche contre Phillipe ! (I’m angry with Phillipe!)

5. se reposer

Definition: To rest

Type of verb: Reflexive

Il va se reposer avant de faire ses devoirs. (He is going to relax before doing his homework.)

Relax! This one is easy (and pretty useful). Plus, it’s easy to remember—just think about being “in repose.”

6. se souvenir de

Definition: To remember

Type of verb: Reflexive

Je me souviens de tous les verbs pronominaux. (I remember all the pronominal verbs.)

At first glance, you’re probably thinking that I’ve made a huge mistake and that this one is one of those idiomatic verbs. Nope, this is just one of those cases where we must remember that French does not always translate smoothly to English. If you’re having trouble with pronominal verb concepts, then just think of this verb as being more grammatically akin to “I remind myself.”

7. se parler

Definition: To talk to

Type of verb: Reciprocal

Elles se parlent en classe. (They talk to each other in class.)

In contrast to its non-pronominal brother, parler (to speak), this verb will use its reciprocal powers for good to help people talk to one another. Se parler is the French goddess of communication!

8. se dire

Definition: To tell (or say to) one another

Type of verb: Reciprocal

Ils se sont dit adieu. (They said goodbye to each other.)

Similar to se parler vs. parler, dire means “to say,” and se dire is to “tell one another.” The nice thing about some of these reciprocal verbs is that even if you aren’t an expert on the conjugations and magical ways of pronominal verbs, you can still interpret them based on your pronoun knowledge!

9. s’aimer

Definition: To love oneself/to love each other

Type of verb: Reciprocal

Après cinquante ans de mariage, ils s’aiment encore. (After fifty years of marriage, they still love each other.)

Aw, what a sweet verb. In addition, you could say “Je m’aime,” (I love myself) to show yourself some warm feelings.

10. s’en aller

Definition: To go away

Type of verb: Idiomatic

À demain, je m’en vais (See you tomorrow, I’m going away!)

Don’t run away! That’s just our good friend en over there. You can review your pronouns if you feel the need, or just remember that en is basically referring to “away” in this verb construction. “Je m’en vais,” like in the example, is a very common phrase in French. It can even be used to signify that you’re just leaving the house for a bit.

11. se trouver

Definition: To be located

Type of verb: Idiomatic

Nous nous trouvons au bar. (We’re at the bar.)

Trouver (to find) was likely one of your staple -er verbs in your beginner days, so the conjugation here is a cinch. This idiomatic pronominal can actually be somewhat translated to “We find ourselves at the bar.” The big hurdle with this one is remembering the difference between the pronominal version and the regular version of the verb when you encounter it in the real world!

12. se demander

Definition: To wonder

Type of verb: Idiomatic

Je me demande si la vie française est tellement meilleure. (I wonder if the French lifestyle is really better.)

Have you ever wondered how to say “I wonder” in French? To remember this one, ask yourself (or wonder) if wondering about something is that different from asking yourself about something. Hmm.

13. se mettre à 

Definition: To begin to

Type of verb: Idiomatic

Je me suis mise à ranger ma chambre, mais… (I began to clean up my room, but…)

“Begin” is usually associated with commencernot the verb mettre (to put). But here we are, with yet another example of how transformative that reflexive pronoun can be. In English, we use the phrase “I started to” or “I began to” pretty often. And you can do the same in French with se mettre à

14. se tromper 

Definition: To be mistaken

Type of verb: Idiomatic

Vous vous trompez, je ne suis pas Julia Roberts. (You are mistaken, I’m not Julia Roberts.)

Tromper on its own means “to cheat,” “to deceive” or “to mislead.” Making it pronominal makes it more innocent, turning it into “being mistaken” or “making a mistake.”

15. s’arrêter 

Definition: To stop oneself

Type of verb: Idiomatic

Il faut s’arrêter si on voit une belle fleur. (You must stop yourself if you see a beautiful flower.)

Often, this is one of the first pronominal verbs you will encounter out there in the real French world. It’s also the perfect verb to stop this list from getting too long.

 

Don’t be intimidated by pronominal verbs ever again.

They’re your friends.

Furthermore, understanding what those reflexive pronouns are trying to tell you will make your French reading, movie watching and listening adventures smoother, more enriching and, most importantly, fear-free.

Happy conjugating!

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